On Nov. 30, the Senate voted to confirm longtime international development expert Gayle Smith as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the federal agency responsible for overseas humanitarian projects like caring for refugees, building clinics, and supporting democracy. In her confirmation speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Smith pledged to expand USAID’s “work and impact on democracy, rights, and governance.” But before Smith expands that work, she should take a look under the hood. She’s likely to find more than a few problems.
While USAID’s traditional development work is better known than its democracy work, the organization dominates democracy assistance, distributing more than 85 percent of the $3 billion the United States spends every year to make the world more democratic.
It’s hardly news that the democracy bureaucracy is often uncoordinated, redundant, and counterproductive.Sometimes, it’s not very smart. Last year, USAID made headlines when details about a secretive social media program designed to bring regime change to Cuba became public. But supporting democrats is an important plank of U.S. influence and national security, and one that can be improved with three reforms that I previously outlined for Democracy Lab.
First, the U.S. government should leave democracy assistance in countries that Freedom House ranks as “not free,” like Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe, to the independent grant-making model exemplified by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) — because in-country offices in authoritarian countries entail all sorts of compromises, dilute programs, and are far more expensive. Second, field-based organizations like the National Democratic Institute and Chemonics International should focus on “partly free” and “free” places already on the road to change, like Ukraine and Tunisia. Finally, noncompetitive mechanisms for awarding funds to democracy promotion organizations should end.
These reforms might be too radical for Smith, a late-Obama-era political appointee whose days in her new role may be numbered. But at a minimum, she should ensure that USAID is…